Greek govt defeats censure vote over Macedonia deal amid protests

A Greek Orthodox priest takes part in a demonstration in Athens on June 15 against the agreement reached to resolve a 27-year name row with Macedonia

Athens (AFP) – Greece’s leftist-led government on Saturday shrugged off a censure vote amid protests against a landmark deal in the 27-year name row with Macedonia to be signed Sunday.

“This is the best agreement the country has had in recent years,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said of the deal, which will eventually see Greece’s northern neighbours renamed the Republic of North Macedonia.

“Is it in our interest to keep open an unnecessary front in our foreign policy?” he asked in parliament shortly before the vote, which was carried by 153 votes out of 280 lawmakers present.

Several hundred protesters gathered outside parliament, and riot police fired bursts of tear gas to keep them from approaching the building.

Some protesters threw firebombs and stones at the police.

“Have you realised what you’re doing? You are boosting (Macedonian) irredentism,” conservative main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis told Tsipras.

“You should get the Nobel Prize for political fraud.”

Athens had long objected to its neighbour being called Macedonia because it has its own northern province of the same name, which in ancient times was the cradle of Alexander the Great’s empire — a source of intense pride to modern-day Greeks.

But earlier this week, the leaders of both countries reached a deal to end the dispute, which dates from Macedonia’s declaration of independence in 1991. 

However, opposition hardliners say the accord amounts to “high treason”.

The provisional accord is to be signed in the fishing village of Psarades on the Prespes Lakes by the respective foreign ministers and longterm UN envoy Matthew Nimetz, with Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev in attendance.

UN under-secretary-general for political affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn will also be present, while protesters from both sides will gather nearby.

The agreement has been welcomed by the United Nations, the European Union and NATO.

– United in dissatisfaction –

The Macedonian parliament should start debating the agreement next week. 

Officials in Athens says the deal will help stabilise the historically volatile Balkan region, permitting Greece to focus on other regional challenges, Turkey among them. 

But from the moment the details emerged, a political storm erupted in both countries, with Macedonia’s pro-nationalist President Gjorge Ivanov vowing to exercise a one-time veto to delay the deal. 

Skopje hopes to secure a date to begin EU accession talks at a summit in late June and an invitation to join NATO in mid-July.

In Athens, there is anger over the government’s acceptance that its neighbour will be able to refer to its language and ethnicity as “Macedonian”.

And to Macedonians, who have espoused this identity since the days of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, the notion of revising their name and constitution is anathema.

On the Macedonian side of the Prespes Lakes, deal opponents on Saturday sang “We have only one name”, a patriotic song popular in the early 1990s.

“This is an absolute defeat of the Macedonian diplomacy in every possible way,” Hristijan Mickovski, who heads the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, said this week.

– Divisions and discontent –

Tsipras’ domestic critics say he has bargained away Greece’s diplomatic advantages — the power of veto over EU and NATO accession — for a deal that could backfire.

Opposition is even stronger in Greece’s north, where Greek and Bulgarian guerrillas fought a bitter four-year war in the early 20th century for predominance among Orthodox Christians in then Ottoman-held Macedonia.

Two short wars were then fought in 1912 and 1913 between the Balkan states and the Ottoman Empire to end six centuries of rule from Istanbul, with atrocities committed by both sides.

In a paradox, Tsipras’ nationalist coalition partners, the Independent Greeks party, supported the government on Saturday but intend to reject the Macedonia deal whenever it goes to a vote.

The agreement still needs to be approved by Macedonia’s parliament and pass a referendum there as well as being ratified by the Greek parliament, a process likely to take months.